The Journey Home – Rothera.

Rothera. The tropical paradise so beloved by my fellow tech team-mate Nick. Nick had done two winters at Rothera and was often wont to wax lyrical about its beauty – especially when compared to Halley. Now although I was initially disappointed to leave Halley via a different route the silver lining was the fact that I got to spend a short amount of time in Rothera.

Way back in 2013, when I was a bright-eyed newbie getting ready to head south, I spent a bit of time with quite a few of the people heading off to winter there and I looked forward to saying hello as well as just wanting to see the place. Before getting the post at Halley I’d obsessed about all the BAS bases and I’d love to visit them all.

So first on that list – Rothera, what’s all the fuss about?

Well first off it is pretty much as beautiful as folk had said. Snow covered peaks surrounding a bay full of ice bergs and wildlife – what’s not to love about that?

Rothera

Rothera

As well as it being pretty scenic (bit of an understatement) it was really nice just to actually walk on solid ground after so long floating on ice.

Rothera

Rothera

Not a bad old view if you’re living at Rothera eh?

As well as some cracking views the place has its other attractions.My personal favourite has got to be the wildlife – you know stuff other than humans that are alive. This was something that, apart from the coolest animal on the planet – The Emperor Penguin, has been in short supply during my time south. On the whole I’ve been in a world where, apart from visiting skuas or petrels or seemingly lost and confused Adelie penguins there’s not so much as a bacterium. Rothera however, even during a bit of a quite spell, is full of all sorts of stuff flying, swimming, waddling or just sleeping.

antarctic fur seal

The gravel  and rock beaches surrounding the base have the appearance of some sort of after party with various seal party casualties sprawled all over the place.

antarctic fur seal

antarctic fur seal

antarctic fur seal

antarctic fur sealThe fur seals, especially, appear to be recovering from some sort of crazy weekend.

weddell sealGot to see a serene looking Weddell seal too.

The other seals lazing around everywhere are the Elephant seals. If you’ve heard anything about elephant seals then you’ll know that they are big. Really big. You still don’t get just how big though, until you’ve seen one. The bigger males seem to be roughly the size of a long wheelbase van.  The ones I saw were females and younger adult males – so none of the full size beach-master monsters unfortunately.

elephant seal

The smaller females (still pretty big by the way) are much more photogenic than the males and also seem to be better mannered.

elephant seal

elephant seal

elephant sealThe males seemed to be quite a bit less gentile. Growling, burping and farting pretty much constantly – you don’t need to get too close before you can smell them. Stench aside though they are fairly impressive animals. Hopefully one day I get to go see a full breeding colony of these giants, complete with the colossal mature males and their proboscis like noses and dramatic, violent disputes. I could live without smelling them again though…

imperial shag

They have other stuff in Rothera too. Birds. Lots of em.

Like the Imperial Shag shown above.

adelie penguinPlenty of pingus knocking about too. Lots of them moulting and looking none too dignified.

Antarctic birdNo idea what the young fella above is.

There you have it. Rothera is quite good. Alright it’s fairly spectacular. Obviously more classically scenic than the desolation of the Brunt ice shelf but still pretty good.

It was nice to see the contented look on Nicks face too!

next up: The RSS James Clark Ross

Halley Highland Games

It was Burns night this weekend so despite the nearest thing to us that could be described as a mountain probably being an iceberg we organised a Highland games, with hammer throwing, tug of war and a bit of caber tossing. The sun stayed out all day too meaning my “highland attire”, consisting of a bed sheet and a vest, wasnt actually too cold. The Hammer throw was a bit disappointing – with my first throw ending up with me in a heap in the snow, though my next effort was slightly better though still off the lead. Tug of war went as well as can be expected when the surface you are trying to get purchase on is ice but I did manage to come first in the caber toss, make of that what you will.

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

halley highland games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yup, that’s me in the dress.

Later on in the evening we had the Haggis address (given by two of the French speakers on base, which made for an interesting accent) and then, for some unknown reason, a night singing eighties power ballads very loudly!

Holiday Down by the Sea….

After being stuck in the ice just around the corner from us the R.S.S. Ernest Shackleton finally arrived down at the creeks near Halley. this meant the relief could begin and we could get all the food, materials, fuel and people for the next year up on station. Relief is the busiest time of year down here and we were going to do it twenty four hours a day in two twelve hour shifts. I was on the night shift and, as a welcome change, was down at the ship helping unload cargo.

The convoy of vehicles and sledges set off down to the coast to be greeted by the sight of the Shack, moored up against the remaining sea ice about a kilometre from the shelf edge.

RSS Ernest Shcakleton against the sea ice

The cargo was unloaded onto waiting sledges and then taken up to the ice shelf where the sledges were hooked together in trains and the pulled back to base.

Despite it being nighttime the sun was well up in the sky so the night shift aspect wasn’t actually to bad. Though shifting one thousand and seven hundred drums of fuel out of the ship for twelve hours was a bit full on.

IMG_0378-001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fuel Drums. Thousands of em…

IMG_0382-001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flip em over….

IMG_0383-001

 

 

 

 

 

Then sling em up and crane em out.

Anyway, despite the long hours and hard work it was great being down at the ship. Showers you could stay in for longer than five minutes, lots of fresh food and a a different view outside were all good. The ships crew were cool too.

adelie penguin

We got plenty of little visitors hanging around near the ship too.

Just before leaving the remaining 2014 winter team came down to the ship for a meal together and then we got ready to jump ship and wave the Shack off. However, just as we were set to leave the sea ice that had seemed so solid when we were loading eight tonne sledges onto it now began to break up. Pretty cool watching it all snap off. Although you know you are not really at the coast but rather just on the ice it still felt like it. When the ice began to break up it quickly began to feel like where we actually were – above deep dark ocean rather than at the seaside!

sea ice breaking up

 

 

 

 

 

antarctic sea ice breaking up

 

 

 

 

 

It was pretty freaky watching chunks of ice that still had your footprints on just disappear!

To actually get back onto the ice shelf the Shack had reverse out to sea and then ram, back into the sea ice, finding a spot that was solid enough not to break off. This took quite a few goes. We eventually got back to stable ice and the were hoisted off the deck and down onto the ice on the wor geordie – no idea how to spell that but it’s big donut with cargo netting attached that is hoisted up by the ships crane (with you hanging onto it). That was a pretty odd end to my stay on the ship.

Oh yeah – we also saw a Leopard Seal basking down on the ice. quite a rare visitor down at Halley.

Right now I’m back up on base and the place is busier than ever – and I’m still adjusting to that!

Speaking to Meadowlark Elementary, Kansas

Last month I had the chance to speak to the fifth grade class at Meadowlark elementary school in Andover, Kansas, after some of the teachers there got in touch with me. They were keen to know about life down here, about climate change and about how it affects things in Antarctica. This is not something I’ve not done much of and I was both thrilled and a little bit nervous about talking to a big group of people and telling them about what I’ve been up to.

kansas1Before our talk they sent through some information about Kansas, with some history, things to do and places to visit such as Dodge City and the Space Museum – somewhere I’d like to visit if I got the chance. They also sent some really cool facts – such as the fact that Amelia Earhart was from there, Kansas is right in the centre of the U.S. and more bizarre things such as the fact that it was one illegal in Kansas to eat ice cream on cherry pie!

I managed to send some pictures through and arranged a time to call. Richard the Halley metbabe and resident climate expert joined me to provide some scientific knowledge to go along my enthusiastic but slightly less knowledgeable rambling.

So, with a slideshow of pictures and an audience to speak to we both sat huddled up to the telephone, excited but hoping that things would go smoothly – we both have strange accents (though mines cooler than Richards apparently!)and we are on a satellite uplink thousands of miles away that can sometimes have quite big delays, so we hoped we would come across nice and clearly.

school2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We showed them some pictures of our crazy looking house, talked about the history of Halley and told them a little about what we get up to both at work and when we get chanced to head out into the great white beyond. And of course we showed them some cute penguin pictures!

school3

 

 

 

 

 

 

school1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spoke a little bit about why it’s so cold here and why everything here is dominated by ice.

The questions we got from the kids were great. Some really intelligent ones and some that made Richard think quite hard for an answer! They also laughed at some of my jokes, which was nice.

Richard and I had a great time and before we knew it well over an hour had passed and we had to get off the phone and back to work!

To say it was cool chatting away was an understatement. It was great being able to share what we’re up to.

To Mrs Moss, Ms. Hoopes, Mrs Loy and Mrs Smokorwski thank you for getting in touch and then listening to the two of us waffle on and show off a bit!

And to the kids in the fifth grade we spoke to – thank you so much for the great questions and for making it such fun. It was a real highlight speaking to you guys. Hopefully in a few years one of you might be down here in this insanely beautiful place chatting with another group of kids far way across the planet!

 

Winter Trips. The Sequel. Part Five.

Yes. Yes it is this Blue!

 

Didn’t bother with the symbol.

Yay, it’s the fifth and final part of my winter trip tale. Dragged it out a bit I suppose! As is traditional I’ll leave my favourite bit till last – though you may not agree (penguin chicks are hard to beat).

After a layup in the tent we awoke to a fairly reasonable day – not perfect by any means, with a cloudy sky and a touch of wind. But good enough to get out of bed and get outside. About a kilometre away from the tent heading down into one of the creeks was an ice cliff with a huge wind scoop in front, quite far back from the tide crack between sea ice and shelf.  This was a good spot for a bit of ice climbing.  It was also a perfect place to practice using our crampons and axes., climbing up the steep but not vertical walls of the wind scoop using the different techniques, with Al providing tips and instructions on the correct use. Some of these were pretty basic such as how to use the toes of the crampons to dig into the ice and how to descend back down again with your feet in different positions and angles to the ice. We also practiced fall arrest techniques using ice axes. It was a good place to get a feel for the ice itself – some of which is solid, some really brittle and the different methods you would use when dealing with each type – some will let you smash the axe or your crampons straight in and give a good solid hold, other bits will shatter and huge chunks will fall off and skitter downwards. We also used some ice screws, long threaded bits of steel that from anchors in the ice for you to rope on to.  After quite a while down in the wind scoop and on some of it’s gentle sides – where we learned loads, we set up the ropes and began climbing the cliff.  I mentioned it before after the last time I did a spot of ice climbing but you use muscles that don’t often get a workout. Your forearms quickly end up exhausted. This, coupled with the fact that your arms are always above your head (and heart), you are gripping the axes tightly and the extreme cold mean it can quickly become very difficult. The blood flow and circulation in your arms and hands is limited by all of the above factors.  About six feet away from the top and I could no longer feel my hands at all – which is a bit of a disadvantage when trying to hold your bodyweight on the handle of an axe. I did manage to get to the top though! Upon reaching the top Al asked how my arms were to which I replied “numb”.  His answer – “You’ll feel em in a minute”

 

Feel em I did. From being held above me, working hard and freezing to the point of numbness your muscles then fill back up with blood, getting pumped up in the way muscles do after a hard workout. Let me tell you. This really hurts!  The hot aches or screaming barfies as they are known in North America (because they make you want to scream and barf at the same time) are a bit like when you are a kid and you’ve been playing out in the snow, making snowballs and then you come back inside and your fingers warm up too quickly giving you a painful pins and needles type of feeling. Well, like that but times a thousand. I was, a bit pathetically, on my knees at the top of the climb trying to “find a happy place” for about five minutes afterwards.

 

I didn’t take any photos of all this climbing malarkey because I was either having too much fun or  a hundred foot up an ice wall (or both). So you’ll just have to imagine that bit.

Once we’d packed up our gear though we decided to have another little jaunt out onto the sea ice and head off in a new direction to see what we could see. As I mentioned the weather wasn’t bad but it was really cloudy. The sun was attempting to shine through but it was really overcast. This made the whole place spectacular. Monumentally spectacular.  Everything you could see, from the cliffs to the ice to the cloudy sky was a shade of blue. A few people have said that the pictures I’ve posted don’t look real – well the ones I took here are even more so. I wish I could post up the high quality photos but the bandwidth just wont let me!

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

 

Yes. Yes it was this blue.

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

Travelling round this lot just takes your breath away. I got all excited about the sea ice as I travelled through on the ship coming down and I’ve been blown away by it’s other-worldliness  each and everytime I’ve been out for a look around but this is just something else.

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

I could try and explain how I was just walking around in a trance staring at all this but the words wouldnt do it justice – the pictures are better but they are still a long way from what it feels like to stand out on the sea looking at all this.

You can see the colour but it was o much more than the pictures show – like thye blueness was was coming from everywhere at once. Then you add the immense scale and the eerie scilence and words don’t stand a chance.

 

So loads more piccies then!

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

 

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

In the words of Rutger Hauer “I’ve seen things you people wouldnt believe” Unlike the Blade Runner replicant though – I took pictures.

 

And lastly – just a little hint of penguin.

sea ice antarctica

 

Well, that was all about my latest excursion out into the great blue yonder!  I’ve been pretty lucky – the two pairs before us didnt really get much of a trip out to speak of and the two after me have only got a few days at windy caboose. Fingers crossed for the next lot. Hope they get to see what I’ve seen!

 

 

WTSQ.P4.

Winter Trip. The Sequel. Part Four. I’m going with initials in the title now, you know – to keep things fresh. Like N.K.O.T.B..  Next one’s just gonna be a symbol.

Anyway, back at the base camp it’s another fine morning. Not too bad temps and little wind with good sun and great contrast – just what’s needed to visit the Rumples.

The Rumples, or The McDonald Ice Rumples to give the area its correct name is a spot on the Brunt ice shelf where the shelf flows over a sea rise, grounding itself. This causes the surrounding floating ice to flow around it faster than the stuck ice in the middle. This causes all sorts of pressures and the ice ends up riddled with huge faults, tears and cracks in it. It creates spectacular features but also fairly treacherous ground.

Here are a few pictures from the air (not mine):

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

McDoMcDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

These are some old shots on the drive at base, not sure who took them and they seem to be taken some time apart from each other. You can see the ice pulling itself to pieces though. These are quite high altitude photos too it has to be pointed out – the area we are looking at is many miles across!

So. The Rumples. You need a good clear day to visit  because it’s easier to see the tell-tale signs of something not quite right below the surface! We skidooed in as far as we dared – and very carefully at that, with regular stops, inspecting the ice in front with a bog-chisel (big stick) and then proceeding slowly on. We got to the approximate location of last years camp and looked down a long canyon stretching towards the centre of the rumples. The plan was to find a likely spot and abseil down into this canyon and have a bit of an explore.  The first bad sign was the occasional deep sounding thump. It seemed to be the sound of cornices or overhangs just melting a touch in the bright sun and slumping down under there own weight.  We were now off the doos in a relatively safe place where we promptly roped up. We set off walking with  the rope kept very tight between us – to minimise any fall should one of us disappear downwards. Al knocked some anchors into the ice and set about trying to find a way down.

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

Al’s statements on the first slot he found started out like “hey this looks good” to “oh aye, this looks interesting” progressing to “it’s a bit gnarly mind” then to “bloody hell, we’re not getting down there”  I reckon a few more minutes and he might have been telling us to run for our lives!

We walked around and tried to find another entry point, Al looked at the various crevasses leading into the main one and again,  they all seemed to be in the range of proper gnarly to “we’ll die down here”.

It seems that, like Gatekeeper, there has been a huge amount of movement of the ice in a few short months. Flags and markers that had been left were now gone, ice features that were once there were now obliterated and crevasses had popped open in areas that were previously relatively stable.

Now, I can’t really describe in words the sound millions of tonnes of ice makes as it moves or breaks but what I can tell you is that it is a noise that tightens sphincters. Something you feel rather than hear. The sound seem to come from everywhere at once and reverberates up through your feet. The whole area felt very dodgy!  Edging across the ice, putting one tentative cramponed boot in front of the other, expecting each step to open up an abyss beneath your feet.  Ok, I’m being a bit dramatic perhaps but it does get the heart going! We have trained in crevasse rescue, are roped and harnessed up nice and tight, have all the right gear to climb back out or rescue each other with us and of course Al is experienced and really knows his stuff but it’s a freaky place. The number of visible slots – just bits of the ice that look slightly different rather than visible open cracks, as well as the knowledge of the ones you can’t even see – it all certainly makes you focus on what you’re doing!  We never did find a way down unfortunately but it was good to visit and see even just a bit of the place. Not too many photos because my mind was on other things, but this one’s a good un!

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

We slowly got back to the doos and then rode out – though even this was a pain-staking experience with us having to do about-turns a number of time to avoid danger.  Even Al, who was obviously a bit more relaxed about things than me said the place was pretty hairy.

So back to base camp, still a nice night so I managed to get a nice picture of the sunset over they pyramid tent.

Sunset over Antarctic pyramid tent

The following day was a bit of a non-event. The weather turned and the wind speed increased leaving us with no choice but to ride things out inside the tent. Having a day holed up in a tent, reading, playing cards, chatting and drinking brews whilst the wind howls around outside is actually fairly nice. You’re away from base, you’ve been exerting yourself for a good few days now and you can actually get fairly snug despite the outside temps. Though on this it has to be said that this is not as straightforward as it could be. In Antarctica you are often having to make choices between two things – and normally one of these is temperature related. When walking around, or even more so riding around, you will have to make the decision of whether to  keep your face nice and warm or have nice clear vision. Wrap your head up too much and your goggles, helmet or specs will steam up and then freeze. Go for clear sight and your nose and eyes will go numb. Your extra thick down sleeping bag provides another one of these dilemmas. You can go for warmth, snuggle up deep down inside and be perfectly warm, but this results in your bag filling with the moisture from your breath and the inside of your bag feeling  about as comfortable to sleep in as a sauna. Or, you can elect to keep your face pointing out of the bag and it will be nice and dry. But your eyeballs will freeze. Decisions decisions. I tried to make a little tunnel out through the top of the bag but kept waking up every hour, sticking my head in and then swapping an hour later. This is only really a problem when it’s lower than -30c though. It’s  fine above that. Whilst on the subject of sleeping bags. Inside your bag is pretty much the only place in the tent where liquid will remain liquid. Anything, from water to contact lenses to camera batteries – anything that has to be kept even slightly warm needs to be in your bag with you. It does become a bit like sleeping in a cutlery draw. I tried getting some pictures of inside the tent but it’s a bit hard when the primus and tilley lamp are on as it quickly gets a bit foggy in there. Cool fact: our primus stoves are made by Optimus. Optimus Primus.

While I’m rambling on, please forgive any spelling mistakes or sentences that erm, don’t make sense. I write stuff out and then by the time I notice a mistake it takes about a day to re-load the page and correct it – so plenty get through!

 

No penguins in this post. Final one coming up next!

Winter Trip. The Sequel. Part Three.

Next installment!

After a night in the sweat-box Windy Caboose we had breakfast, tidied up and made plans for the day. John, my partner on this trip had missed his last one and still (after being south a few times)  had still not seen the Hinge zone on any of his trips.  Hinge zone it was then!

We set off on the long journey that would take us back up to the base and then beyond. The route from windy to base is a well-travelled one and we were riding the doos un-roped. Once past base and away southwards towards the continent we stopped, harnesses up and roped all our sledges and skidoos together. This form of travel is a lot less relaxed for a few reasons.

Firstly you need to concentrate a lot more – you don’t want the rope too slack or it will be pointless (if a skidoo fell through into a crevasse it would fall further, meaning more shock-loading) or it can get tangled up in the skidoo itself. Too taut a rope and you end up getting a tow from the doo in front – pulling all that extra weight will quickly damage it.  It’s a fine line between the two and you have to constantly match you speed to the doo in front, something that’s easy on a flat road, slightly harder on a sastrugi laden ice shelf.

The second reason this method of travel is not as relaxed is the actual reason we have to rope up – crevasses. Huge slots in the ice that can be covered over with just enough snow to be hidden, or be completely open yet still impossible to see until you’re right on top of them!

The first big feature you come to when travelling to the hinge zone is Gatekeeper. A known large crevasse  with a section in the middle that narrows and has a very large and stable snow bridge across. Well, that was the last description of gatekeeper from the last visit there about five months ago. Things change!

gatekeeper crevasse

We got within ten or twenty metres of where the crossing was, Al stopped and did a bit of a recce. I sat about twenty metres or so back and really couldn’t tell what he was looking at all.  He turned back with a funny look on his face, waving his arms…

 

 

I roped up and walked down towards whatever Al was looking at, tied to a skidoo.

gatekeeper crevasse

 

From the pic above you can tell that there’s not much to see right?

gatekeeper crevasse

This was the view once I looked in. The photo is deceptive – this thing was deep!  Also, the bottom is definitely not the bottom and could be just one of numerous false floors going down.

 

gatekeeper crevasse

This is the view straight across, I couldn’t see any of this  from less than ten metres away! The far crevasse is where the bridge used to be. This has now slumped in as the gap widened. Another slot has opened up in front leaving an island in the centre. The whole thing is a good fifty metres wide!

gatekeeper crevasse

Above is the view to the right.

gatekeeper crevasse

And to the left!

 

The photos just don’t look that impressive compared to the real thing. This whole feature was stretching out for kilometres making it virtually impassable.

Late last year Al had been down with one of the previous years wintering crew and abseiled down in to Gatekeeper. They had thrown in eighty metres of rope and still not even been able to see any bottom!

So sadly the Hinge was not to be for John. The whole area will have to be looked at in the summer and a new route found to get to the hinge.

We turned around (very carefully!) and set off back down towards the coast. Time was moving on and we decided to get back down to the creeks area, set up a base camp and venture out from there to other destinations.

Setting up camp takes a few hours and this then left us a bit of time to once again venture out onto the sea ice.

antarctic sea ice

antarctic sea ice

antarctic sea ice

A small crevasse from the side (still big enough for a human to disappear and die in mind you).  Small cracks can quickly turn into something the size of a valley given the forces that are acting on the ice – moving along at a rate of four hundred metres a year, with trillions of tonnes pushing it.

 

antarctic sea ice

All this ice will of course break off when it reaches the calving face and any weakness or lines of stress in the ice will be right where it breaks. Sometimes this will lead to icebergs as big as small countries breaking off in one go – something that could well have left the old Halley V base floating away on a berg if a known fault line had actually split (this is one of the reasons BAS needed a new Halley). In other cases the ice might just get to the front and just break apart in small pieces and drop down on to the sea ice like a landslip or rockfall. Of course when I say small you have to bear in mind that some of the “little” blocks of ice that fall off will weigh thousands of tonnes!

antarctic sea ice

 

antarctic sea ice

The shelf ice breaking off in winter will fall down onto the sea ice. Some of the huge falls will then smash into the sea ice, either causing it to break and then reform or send out shock waves across it making huge cracks – like someone hitting safety glass with a hammer.

antarctic sea ice

These cracks can be pretty big too. They can pull apart and re-freeze like this. Or, the ice can be smashed back together again Leaving great chunks sticking up.

antarctic sea ice

 

Some of the ice though looks more like volcanic rock and seems to flow  rather than fall into the sea ice.

antarctic sea ice

DSC_0767

Some areas look like they’ve been whipped up like ice cream.

antarctic sea ice

or been chipped away an shaped with a giant chisel or adze.

antarctic sea ice

 

Then there’s the merangue-like over-hangs (overhangues?) Some of these are thirty metres tall – made of just blown snow and ice sticking together. Sticking out quite a way from the cliff tops these must end up weight huge amounts, some of them actually look impossible – like that are defying gravity. ALthough they look quite fluffly when your trying to get through one from below when climbing, or trying to break one from above looking for a place to abseil they actually seem more like concrete!

antarctic sea ice

antarctic sea ice

And lastly of course…. more of the locals.

antarctic sea ice

 

 

 

After a trip out eastwards on the sea ice we still had explore the west. And also fancied a trip to the Rumples!

That’s all coming up next in the winter trip sequel!!